Every Feb. 5, Nutella aficionados worldwide take to social media to celebrate World Nutella Day, composing songs, hosting parties and posting pictures of the sinfully sumptuous hazelnut and chocolate spread on everything from pancakes to pizzas to pastries.
This year’s event was particularly notable, as the “Nutella riots” had surprised the world just 11 days earlier. A French grocery chain slashed Nutella prices by 70%, leading to brawls, injuries, and an “orgy” of shopping madness. The uproar was so extreme that the French government began an investigation to see if consumer laws for discounting merchandise had been broken.
It was all for a spread that’s more palm oil and sugar than hazelnut (13%) and chocolate (7%) – but nonetheless saw astounding global sales of $2.46 billion in 2013. 180 million kilograms of Nutella are manufactured annually, hogging a quarter of the world’s entire hazelnut supply. In fact, Nutella has made its owners – the Ferrero family – so wealthy they recently bought Nestle; they claim to manufacture the same number of Tic Tacs in four years as stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
The meteoric rise of Nutella, and the devotion it inspires, is even more fascinating when one considers that this decadent chocolate-nut butter is actually a direct result of wartime shortages and rationing. Nutella was inspired by a confectioner’s compromise called “gianduja,” invented in Turin, Italy, in the early 1800s when there was a shortage of cocoa due to restrictions imposed by Napoleon.
During World War II, when cocoa was once again in short supply, a pastry maker named Pietro Ferrero improved on the recipe, using the abundant supply of prized, local hazelnut paste. According to Nutella, the blend was made in solid loaves wrapped in tinfoil, to be sliced and smeared on bread – and was about 2/3 hazelnut paste and 20% cocoa. Ferrero’s son Michele tinkered once again with the recipe, turned it into a cream, packaged it in a jar, and named it “Nutella.” He became so wealthy he commuted by helicopter every day from his Monte Carlo villa to Alba in northwest Italy. Today the company is the third-largest confectioner in the world.